When Jonathan Gil Harris flew to India after taking Hindi lessons in America, he did not expect to find he had learnt a ‘Hindi’ that no one in the country spoke.
“I went to a man on the street and asked, “ Kripaya bataaye, vishwavidyala ka pustakalaya kahaan hai (please tell me where the university library is?)”, and the response I got was “Eh?", he told the audience at a session on ‘Global Desi: On Being Both Foreign and Indian’. It was only later that he was introduced to the living language which was a “ khichdi ” of Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, Bhojpuri and English.
While Harris, the dean of Academic Affairs at Ashoka University, eventually learnt a more “useful” Hindi from Bollywood films, actor and model Padma Lakshmi took the reverse route — having grown up in America and Europe, she became a symbol of the “exotic Indian” to the West. The two global citizens, along with The Economist ’s India correspondent Alex Travelli, joined in a conversation with Veena Venugopal, the editor of BLink, on what being a ‘global desi’ entailed.
For Padma Lakshmi, her biggest anchor to her culture was the frequent trips she took as a child to India. “From age five to 17, I spent three out of 12 months of the year in India,” she said. Being Indian gave her the temerity to explore Indian cooking and, as a young girl, to teach her neighbours how to cook with curry leaves. “I would never have been able to write a book on spices had I not crossed oceans and cultures,” she explained.
For Alex Travelli, who is married to a Bengali and settled in New Delhi, the challenge is to raise his son without falling into the bubble expatriates often live in. “I want him to go to an Indian school, and not one of the international schools, so that he grows up as an Indian, speaking the language of the street,” Travelli said.
N Ram, Chairman of Kasturi and Sons Ltd, had a question for Harris on the various forms of English he had encountered in the country. Harris replied that there were two ways of looking at English spoken in India. “One is that it is something brought by the British that Indians need to give up. Another is, to see it as one of the many Indian languages.”
Pointing out that English too was born of the confluence of many languages, he said, “For this reason I consider English a fundamentally Indian language.”